Thirty years after his death (he was shot 19 times in a brutal police operation), the facts of Jacques Mesrine’s life and criminal career read like the results of some fevered pulp imagination. Surely he can’t be real? An international criminal Renaissance man, murderer, kidnapper, a master of disguise, a bank robber who’d hit another bank over the road if the mood took him, who gave an interview to Paris Match while on the run, escaped from his own sentencing by taking the judge hostage, broke out of prison after prison, and on one occasion even returned to one to free his fellow prisoners? Mesrine seems to have been born from the 60s-70s zeitgeist, some weird Clyde Barrow/James Bond/Andreas Baader hybrid thrown up by the public subconscious. But nope, he did exist, Jean-Franí§ois Richet and Vincent Cassel have made a 245-minute film about him based on his autobiography, and they have trouble fitting everything in.
Released in two parts, Mesrine is, for the most part, an exciting, if conventional biopic. Richet (who directed the efficient, but pointless Assault on Precinct 13 remake in 2005) has a ball with yer regulation gangster schtick. There are pulse-pounding prison breaks, tense shoot-outs, bank and casino robberies and car chases. There are piles of money and hot molls on tap (Elena Anaya, Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier). There are all kinds of exciting low-lifes played by great character actors (Gérard Depardieu, Roy Dupuis and a great turn from Mathieu Amalric). There’s a Schifrin-esque 70s score peppered with period pop as we hop from country to country over three decades. It’s a film of set-pieces and sequences, thrilling, and disturbing, and familiar. Everything you need is present and correct, it’s glossy, sexy, good-looking and halfway in love with its own roguish glamour. It’s hard to begrudge this, though, when the results are so much fun to watch.
To Richet’s credit, there is some grit in the oyster. Young Mesrine is seen in Algeria killing Arabs with a gun and full sanction given by the government he later postured against, and the first film especially depicts him as a nasty piece of work under all the surface charm, a racist wife-beater with a hair-trigger temper, ruthless and capable of vile acts of cruelty. He becomes transformed, after a fashion, by his own narcissism. An off-the-cuff ‘Vive le Québec libre!’ to some assembled journalists politicises him in the media and the public mind, and his criminal career is magically turned into a revolutionary one by the ferment of the times. Entranced by this romantic vision of himself, he starts to act up to this press-created identity, and in the second film becomes trapped by it. There is an intriguing ambiguity to this; we are never sure how much he buys his own outlaw clichés, and this is mostly Vincent Cassel’s work. This is probably the meatiest role he’s ever going to get, and he excels as a man playing the part of a superstar subversive who never quite convinces himself in the role. Full of bravado and populist rhetoric when cameras or an audience are watching, but an empty self-serving bastard inside, Cassel’s Mesrine is all strut and swagger, smiles that never reach the eyes and shifty glances to monitor reactions, utterly convincing as a man racing towards the grave because he has nothing to lose. It is his utter fearlessness, his permanent state of rebellion against everything and the ambivalence of his one-man attack on ‘the system’ that make him such a fascinating character. Cassel has described Mesrine as ‘a symbol of freedom and a terrible man’, which seems about right. I would have liked a little more of the terrible man, personally, but there’s enough here to chew on.